This question reminded me of a claim that I've heard before, namely, that J. S. Bach was the first keyboardist to utilize the thumbs in his playing technique. I'm not sure where I've heard this, but believe I've seen it in several places, always unsourced. The claim sounds incredible, given the age of keyboard instruments (some organs even date to BC), that no one had ever thought to try using their thumbs before. But perhaps I am biased by the perspective of modern technique.

  • What is the source for this alleged fact? Is it reliable or is it just rumor and hearsay?
  • Do we have any knowledge of thumbs being used in keyboard technique prior to Bach?
  • For that matter, how did people even play a keyboard without thumbs? I can't imagine how that would work. (possibly out of scope for this question)

Original sources, or modern scholarly research, are preferred, where possible.

  • 1
    It would be hard to say if he was the first (such a long time ago) but I have read that most pre-Bach keyboardists played scales by crossing the middle finger over the ring finger or pinky and that thumbs were once considered an unwieldy blunt digit and the use thereof was avoided. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 3:42
  • Sounds a bit like the guitar. Purists would never use a thumb for fretting, but someone came up with the idea, which actually worked (assuming one has a long thumb!) subsequently lots of players use it.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 8:06
  • @Tim That might depend on genre. I'm not sure if anyone playing rock guitar could be described as a "purist", since rock technique is almost universally personalized. Also, some of the biggest names in the history of rock guitar have fretted with their thumbs (Jimi Hendrix!!, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan), so any discussion of rock technique, pure or otherwise, would have to at least mention, if not outright recommend, thumb fretting. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:24

5 Answers 5

  1. Rumour or hearsay, I think, abetted by C.P.E. Bach.
  2. Yes. Evidently Santamaria's Arte de tañer fantasia from the 16th century gives examples of quick scale passages using the thumb, and also warns about using the thumb on black keys except when paired with an octave. I'm getting this secondhand (Historical Harpsichord Technique: Developing La douceur du toucher, Yonit Lea Kosovske, 2011, pgs. 121 and 126), as, while IMSLP has the original Arte de tañer, I'd have to try translating the writing and deciphering movable type examples - not easy. (My second language isn't Spanish.)
  3. Except for the simplest music, it probably wouldn't work. I think you'd be hard-pressed to play, say, Bull or Sweelinck without the use of the thumb (especially chordal passages).

Claims of this nature are properly subject to a certain skepticism, I think - Alessandro Scarlatti (of the previous generation to Bach's) specified the thumb quite liberally for his first Toccata. (IMSLP has the Shedlock edition, which is fairly assiduous about following the manuscript.)

  • 4
    "My late father told me about having heard great men in his youth who did not use the thumb except when it was necessary for large stretches. Since he lived at a time in which there gradually took place a quite remarkable change in musical taste, he was obliged to think out a much more complete use the fingers, and especially to use the thumb (which apart from other uses is quite indispensable especially in the difficult keys) in such a manner as Nature, as it were, wishes to see it used. Thus it was raised suddenly from its former idleness to the position of the principal finger.29"
    – user16935
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:34

(Sorry, this was to be a comment continuing on the previous thread, but I wanted to include pictures)

His site

This picture was used in a video class I've seen, by Prof. Craig Wright from Yale where he corroborated the perspective that primite (late medieval/early renaissance context) keyboard playing was done without using the thumbs. He also referred to what he called the "3 over 3" method used afterwards until Bach's time, which seems to be the same thing as the finger crossing mentioned by Rockin above.

Another interesting source relating to this subject is Couperin's "Art of Playing the Keyboard" (L'Art the Toucher le Clavecin). This 1716 work was a reference during the Baroque and was commended by Bach himself (Christopher Hogwood, The Keyboard in Baroque Europe). Couperin stressed the use of the index, middle and ring fingers, using the thumb only occasionally in very specific situations. Here's a scale fingering from this book: enter image description here

Another source that corroborates this view is the "amateur" harpsichordist (he recorded the integral Scarlatti sonatas in his custom built harpsichord!) John Sankey. His site has a wealth of information and references about ancient keyboard playing, specially the harpsichord.

Apparently this "3 finger" approach was state of the art until C.P.E.Bach's "True Art of Playing the Harpsichord", where, thumb crossing is given some relevance. Quoting from Sankey's site, «Five fingers can only play five notes in a row. To extend this range, there are two main techniques: the turning under of the thumb and the crossing over of the fingers.(C.P.E.Bach, 1753).»

I wonder if it is a coincidence that C.P.E. was among the first to write for pianoforte. I don't have any experience with the harpsichord, but I've been told it has a ligther touch than the piano, probably requiring a different technique to optimize speed and fluency. Could it be the relatively stronger touch of the new pianoforte that prompted the adoption of new techniques? Anyone can coment on this idea?

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    Since I play using my thumbs and also often could be seen with my hands in almost the exact same position as in the first image, I don't understand what about that first image supports the idea that the player in that image was not using their thumbs. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:20
  • 1
    You're right, it's no proof, it was used by Prof. Craig only for illustrative purposes of the thesis he was presenting. What's more, we don't even know if the model actually played the instrument, and there are many comtemporary paintings with similar subjects that show hands in a much more (for our standards) natural position. Having said that, in this picture to me it really seems that the thumb is positioned in a rather akward way, like if wanted really out of the way. Totally subjective interpretation, of course, I guess one tends do see what one wants do see... Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 14:38
  • 1
    If you compare the size of the hands and fingers with the dimensions of the keyboard, there is a rather obvious lack of realism in the picture - not to mention the fact that the "black" keys appear to be on the same level as the "white" ones. There are enough of surviving early keyboards to know what their typical real dimensions were.
    – user19146
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 4:05

Having played both piano and harpsichord, let me throw another idea out there on top of all the excellent academic sources people have quoted:

In harpsichord it does not matter how hard or soft you hit the key (since it plucks rather than hits the string). Good technique is, thus, centered around control of the "touch", and typically the goal is to keep the finger as close to the key as possible. (This is referenced, for example, in Couperin's L'Art De Toucher Le Clavecin on pg. 11)

The thumb, being shorter than the other fingers, presents a specific challenge to this goal. Playing a key with the thumb, particularly an accidental, risks tilting the rest of your hand and sacrificing the closeness and control of the other fingers to the strings. Notes played with the thumb also tend to be play with the finger slightly tilted, which also sacrifices some control.

While plenty of Baroque composers wrote octaves, parallel sixths, and other figures that clearly can only be played using the thumb, the thumb was otherwise de-emphasized. This is clear from the scale fingering referenced above. Playing Baroque music modernly I think of it this way: I never play an accidental with the thumb unless I absolutely cannot avoid it. For non-accidental notes, I try to use another finger if it's not too onerous. In practice that helps me keep close enough to the key as is reasonable for most pieces.

So no, Bach was not the first composer to use the thumb. As the harpsichord transitioned to the fortepiano (certainly during CPE Bach's lifetime), avoiding the thumb became less important in good technique and CPE might have boasted about his father being in the vanguard of Classical technique.


CPE Bach certainly made that assertion about his father, but remember that they both had very limited access to anything except "contemporary music", compared with what is available to anyone today.

If you look at any collection of 16th century keyboard music written 50-100 years before JSB), it is full of octave stretches, especially for the left hand. There is no way it could have been played without using thumbs. The typical fingering for an octave of a scale was certainly given as 2 3 4 2 3 4 2 3, but early keyboard music was not restricted to single-note scales. Virtually any page of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book http://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/178082 (one of the larger collections of keyboard music made in about 1600) has examples of 4-note chords spanning an octave and played with one hand.

In fact, some 16th century keyboard music is a significantly more technically challenging than much of JS Bach. For example look at the piece on pages 34-39 in volume 2 of the same collection http://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/05178. Even the Goldberg Variations don't have fast scale passages in double-thirds and double-sixths played with one hand!

  • 1
    Although, looking at it further, I suspect it was more puffery for C.P.E.'s dad than a lack of knowledge of earlier music. Bach was known to have Froberger in his library, and there's another composer whose music would be hard to negotiate without ample recourse to the thumbs (also one who would be familiar to younger musicians of the time - the Hexachord Fantasia was used as training material as late as Beethoven).
    – user16935
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 16:02

Do we have any knowledge of thumbs being used in keyboard technique prior to Bach?

About 150 years before Bach, several books like "Declaracion de Instrumentos" (Bermudo, 1555) and Arte de tañer (Santamaría, 1565) allow the use of the thumb. From the later book:

enter image description here

In English: "Thumbs are not allowed for black keys, except when playing octaves, with any hand, or when there is no other alternative".

Bermudo goes farther, and prescribes as normal the fingering 1-2-3-4 4-3-2-1 for scale passages. A few more details (in Spanish) here.

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